The Problem of Zen Values:

“The Head of a Dead Cat”

Zen values can be perceived from the essence of the teachings recorded in Zen literature.  A sample of three koans, put in the form of Q/A  - will be discussed in this and following pages.

Obviously, a particular koan may describe a real event (which could have taken place in reality), but it may also express just a metaphor for the values (or essence), which the koan contains.  In either case, the described statements in koans offer a glimpse into the qualities contained in the teachings of Zen masters as conveyed to disciples generation after the other.  There are two well-known koans involving cats, one is Killing a Cat and Predicting the cat’s Enlightenment, and the other is about the value of a dead cat:

The Head of a Dead CatA disciple asked the master: What is the most expensive thing in the world”? The master replied: “The head of a dead cat, because no body gives it a price”.

In his book Pointing at the Moon , Alexander Holstein offers an explanation to the  abovementioned koan, as being the master’s attempt to ‘shock the usual way of thinking’ of the questioner, and to teach his disciple to destroy the common values of ordinary mind”.

It is evident in this teaching, that the question of “what is valuable?” - was answered through “what is not valuable”.  It is also apparent that the commentator who tried to explain the master’s bizarre answer – did not answer the question: what is valuable in life, or what does Buddhism consider as valuable.

The master’s intention to give an answer aiming to “destroy the values of ordinary mind”  - is non-Buddhist in essence.  Buddhism teaches, that the ordinary mind of common people (of the Nine Worlds) contains within it the Buddha mind or Buddhanature as well. The “common values of ordinary mind” contain also humanistic values such as compassion, courage, seeking spirit, altruism, love…etc… common values which can be rather enriched through Buddhism - rather than “destroyed”.

What is “valuable” in Buddhism ?

The question (of what is the most precious thing in the world) was in fact about what is precious (sacred or divine) in Buddhism.  This question was also treated by Nichiren, and he gave the following explanation: lf WND1 p 301,  and,

One day of Life is more valuable than all the treasures of the major world systemA single life is worth more than the major world system” WND1 p 955 

Nichiren also refers to the value of a compassionate heart of ordinary people:

More valuable than treasures in a storehouse are the treasures of the body, and the treasures of the heart are the most valuable of all. From the time you read this letter on, strive to accumulate the treasures of the heart! WND1 p 851

SGI literature comments on these statements: When we base our values on the treasures of the heart [compassion], the true value and worth of the treasures of the storehouse [material wealth] and the body [health and skills] also become apparent in our lives.

In short, we need to make accumulating the treasures of the heart our fundamental purpose in life.  If we lose sight of this elemental objective, but seek to accumulate the treasures of the storehouse and the body – it will only give rise to attachment. When that happens, fear of losing such material or physical treasures can become a cause of suffering.

It is therefore important above all to accumulate the treasures of the heart. This reflects a correct sense of purpose in life.”

Source: SGI Newsletter No. 7929, Lecture on The Three kinds of Treasures, 2010)


                                                   Zen & Nichiren Buddhism      


                           The Origin of Zen    Confession of a Zen Master        Ikeda on Zen 



                              Chanting & silent Meditation       Why did Nichiren criticise Zen?          


                                     Dog’s Buddhanature              Master’s Duty of Care